Going All-in: The Legacy of Willie Nelson on Country Music

We missed seeing Willie at Merlefest thanks to COVID-19 derailing his 2020 booking there, but in thinking about his upcoming show in Charlotte, here’s a piece about the Red Headed Stranger to enjoy.

88 years old, still playing shows, still recording music – as recently as March 2021 he’s been dropping new material, with original track I’ll Be Seeing You (subsequently used by the Ad Council for a COVID-19 vaccination PSA) following on from February’s That’s Life, a collection of Sinatra covers and his 71st solo studio LP. It seems counterproductive to think about Nelson’s legacy while he’s still actively building it – he’s touring again in October – but maybe his most lasting influence won’t be in his shows, or his awards, maybe it’ll be in his pioneering impact on music.

Nashville’s the home of country and that’s as true today as it was when Willie pitched up in Vancouver and made his first record in 1956. In his 12 year spell in Music City, he never made a top 10 single; his biggest success being a cover of Bring Me Sunshine from the unlikely source of British comedians Morecambe & Wise, and in 1972, having had enough of Tennessee, he decided to retire from music altogether. Now we know that didn’t last. But that’s when he started to do things on his own terms.

He moved to Austin, unretired, and signed to Columbia, who gave him total creative control on 1975’s Red Headed Stranger which instantly became his most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album yet. When the country music insiders predicted 1977’s Stardust would sink his career, it went platinum the same year. His work on Austin City Limits gave his new home its foundation as a city for music that these days sees industry and fans flocking from around the globe to SXSW.

Willie’s always been ahead of the trends; he starts the bandwagons that are still rolling. By taking country out of Nashville he laid the path for the alt-country of today like Jason Isbell and Wilco. By fusing country to blues and creating outlaw country he developed a sound that you can hear in folks as diverse as the Southern rock of Tyler Ramsey and Band Of Horses to the psychobilly of The Reverend Horton Heat (who Willie’s also collaborated with).

Famously, he was a huge advocate for equal marriage way before it was on the mainstream radar. We know all about his cannabis advocacy. And a different kind of pot, it should also be noted that Nelson has a long-standing relationship with Texas Hold’em. Long before the game surged in popularity in the early 2000s, the outlaw country star was playing the game with other musician friends. Texas Hold’em is the most popular poker game played by a wide margin, but that wasn’t always so before TV got involved in it. Draw and stud were by far the more common games in 1963 when Willie met Merle Haggard, who’d go on to be one of his closest friends, at the card table. Merle’s no longer with us these days, so Willie’s games are with the likes of Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson at his house in Hawaii. And he still insists nobody leaves the table until all bets are cleared up and all monies settled. Why? Because he’s still doing everything on his own terms!